Pike (weapon)

A pike is a two-handed pole weapon, a very long spear once used extensively by infantry for both attacks on enemy foot and as a counter-measure against cavalry assaults.

The Pike as a Weapon

Pikes were extremely long weapons, carried by infantry and resembling a spear between 10 and 14 feet (3 and 4 meters) long. They had a wooden shaft with a steel spearhead affixed. When the troops of opposing armies both carried the pike, it often grew in a sort of "arms race," getting longer in both shaft and head length to give one side's pikemen an edge in the combat; the longest pikes could exceed 22 feet (6 meters) in length. The extreme length of such weapons required a strong wood such as well-seasoned ash for the pole, which was made narrower towards the tip of the weapon to prevent the pike sagging on the ends, although this was always a problem in pike handling.

The great length of the pike allowed many spearheads to be presented to the enemy and greater reach, but also made it unwieldy in a confused close combat. This meant that pikemen had to be equipped with a sword for the chaos of melee, although pikemen attempted to avoid such disorganized combat, at which they were at a disadvantage. To compound their difficulties in such melee, the pikeman often did not have a shield, or had only a small shield of limited use in a sword duel.

Tactical Options

In operation on the battlefield, pikes were often used in "hedgehog" formations, particularly by troops such as rebel peasants and militias who had not received a great deal of training in tactical maneuvers with the weapon. In these, the troops simply stood and held their pikes out in the direction of the enemy, sometimes standing in great circles or squares with the men facing out in all directions so that the enemy was confronted by a forest of bristling pikeheads wherever he turned, and so that the pike formation could not be attacked from the rear.

Better-trained troops were capable of using the pike in an aggressive attack, each rank of pikemen being specially trained to hold their pikes so that the combined layers of projecting spears confonted enemy infantry with four or five layers of spearheads bristling from the front of the formation. Such a formation could roll right over the enemy, and put pause even into the formidable legionaries of Rome, but had its own weaknesses -- as the men were all moving forward, they were all facing in a single direction and could not easily turn to protect the vulnerable flanks or rear of the formation, and the huge block of men carrying such unwieldy spears could be difficult to manuever, other than for straight-forward movement. As a result, such mobile pike formations sought to have supporting troops protect their flanks, or would maneuver to smash the enemy before they could themselves be outflanked.

Ancient Usage

Although very long spears had been used since the dawn of organized warfare, the earliest use of a pike-like weapon in the tactical method described above involved the Macedonian Sarissa, used by the troops of Alexander the Great's father, Philip II of Macedon, and successive Hellenistic dynasties, which dominated warfare for several centuries in many countries until eventually overthrown by the Roman legionary system of warfare. (As "pike" is a European name for this type of weapon, this page focuses on the use of the pike in Europe. For more information on its classical usage in the Hellenistic world, see the entry for Sarissa.)

Medieval Revival

In the Middle Ages, the first use of the pike was by urban militia troops such as the Flemings or the peasant array of the lowland Scots, formed in large masses to defeat the cavalry superiority of their royal foes. For example, the Scots used a spear formation called a schiltron in mostly defensive fashion to defeat English knights at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, and the Flemings used their geldon long spear to absorb the attack of French knights at the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, before counterattacking the stalled knights with polearms. Both battles were rightly seen as stunning victories of commoners over superbly equipped, mounted, military professionals, where victory was owed to the usage of the pike and the brave resistance of the commoners who wielded them.

These largely defensive formations were essentially immune to knightly attack as long as the knights obligingly threw themselves on the spear wall, but the passive nature of pike formations made them very vulnerable to enemy archers and crossbowmen, who could shoot them down with impunity. Many defeats were suffered by the militia pike armies when faced by cunning foes who employed their archers and crossbowmen to thin the ranks of the pike blocks before charging in with the knights.

Renaissance Heyday

Swiss and Landsknecht pikemen fight at "push of pike" during the Italian Wars.
Swiss and Landsknecht pikemen fight at "push of pike" during the Italian Wars.

The Swiss brought a renaissance to pike warfare in the 15th century, establishing strong training regimens to ensure they were masters of handling of the Spiess (the German term for the long pike) on maneuvers and in combat, the Swiss having also introduced marching to drums for this purpose. This meant that the pike blocks could rise to the attack, making them less passive and more aggressive formations, but sufficiently well trained that they could go on the defensive when attacked by cavalry. German soldiers known as Landsknechts later adopted Swiss methods of pike handling.

Such Swiss and Landsknecht phalanxes also contained two-handed swordsmen and halberdiers for close action against both infantry and attacking cavalry.

These formations had great successes on the battlefield, starting with the astonishing battlefield victories of the Swiss cantons against Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the Burgundian Wars, in which the Swiss participated in 1476 and 1477. In the battles of Grandson, Morat and Nancy, the Swiss not only successfuly resisted the attacks of knightly foes, as the passive Scottish and Flemish infantry squares had done in the earlier middle ages, but also marched to the attack with great speed and in good formation, the bristling attack columns steamrolling the Burgundian forces, sometimes with great massacre.

The deep pike attack column remained the primary form of effective infantry combat for the next forty years, and the Swabian War saw the first conflict in which both sides had large formations of well-trained pikemen. The combatants in that war, the Swiss and their Landsknecht imitators, would face each other often in the wars that followed, the Italian Wars, which would become in many ways the military proving ground of the Renaissance. Finally, the rise of firearms and artillery in the sixteenth century made the big pike columns vulnerable to being shot down despite their awesome close-combat power. The decline of the combat column of pikemen was starkly displayed at the terrible Battle of Bicocca in 1522, for instance.

The Pike in Support of Firearms

In the sixteenth century, the Spanish sought to develop a balance between the close-combat power of the pike and the long-range effectiveness of the firearm. They developed the Tercio formation, in which arquebusier or musketeer formations (or even longbowmen, in an English variation) fought on the flanks of the pikemen, in formations sometimes resembling a checkerboard. These formations used a mixture of men, each with a different tactical role -- the shooters dealt out casualties to the enemy, while the pikemen protected the shooters from enemy cavalry and fought if the Tercio closed in hand-to-hand combat. As a result, the tercio deployed smaller numbers of pikemen than the huge Swiss and Landsknecht columns.

Mixed pike and shot formations in a seventeenth-century battle.
Mixed pike and shot formations in a seventeenth-century battle.

The tercio proved more flexible and eventually prevailed over the grand pike block, the mixed formation became the norm for European infantrymen, and the numbers armed with firearms in Tercio-like formations steadily increased as firearms became more effective. In the late sixteenth into the seventeenth century, smaller pike formations were used, invariably defending attached musketeers, often as a central block with two sub-units using firearms, called "sleeves of shot," on either side of the pikes.

The End Period of Pike Usage

Eventually, after the mid-seventeenth century, armies that adopted the flintlock musket began to abandon the pike altogether, or to greatly decrease their numbers. This was because a bayonet could be affixed to the musket, turning it into an impromptu spear, and the musket's firepower effectiveness was now so deadly that combat was often decided by shooting alone.

In such an environment, pikemen grew to intensely dislike their own weapon, as they were forced to stand inactive as the combat went on around them as the opposing musketeers duelled, feeling that they were mere targets rather than soldiers, and that they were adding nothing to the battle raging around them. There are examples of pikemen throwing their weapons down and seizing muskets from fallen comrades, a sign that the pike was on the wane as a weapon.

A common end date for the use of the pike in infantry formations is 1700, by which time the Prussian and Austrian armies had already abandoned the weapon, although others such as the Swedish and the Russian continued to use it for several decades afterward -- the Swedes of king Charles XII in particular using it to great effect until the 1720s.

Even later, the obsolete pike would still find a use, but only in the hands of desperate peasant rebels. For instance, in Ireland, the pike was widely used by insurgents in the rebellion of 1798 and as late as the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of 1848. Pikes were even used by men of the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers in the Easter Rising of 1916.

In addition, shortened versions called naval pikes, similar to spears, were used on board warships as naval weapons as late as the third quarter of the 19th century.

Pikes live on today only in traditional roles, being used to carry the colours of an infantry regiment.

The Awl pike (Ahlspiess) is not a pike in itself, but a completely different weapon.

Strangely, the great Hawaiian warrior king Kamehameha I had an elite force of men armed with very long spears who seem to have fought in a manner identical to European pikemen, despite his people's general disposition for individualistic duelling as their method of warfighting. It is not known if Kamehameha himself introduced this tactic, or if it was a traditional Hawaiian weapon usage.

References

  • Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War, originally published in 1920; University of Nebraska Press (reprint), 1990 (trans. J. Renfroe Walter). Volume III: Medieval Warfare.
  • McPeak, William. Military Heritage, 7(1), August 2005, pp. 10,12,13.
  • Oman, Charles. A History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. London: Methuen & Co., 1937.
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500-1800, Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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